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Toward the Virtual City and The Crisis of Place

A Review of Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, 2009, 480 pps.)

For residents of Manhattan, reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City may lead to a strange case of urban anxiety. While his portrayal of contemporary Manhattan evokes familiar elements  – the oversize hamburgers, a strange smell in the air, the constant rumblings along Second Avenue, the comings and goings of apartment residents, the touches of fantasy in the writer's new novel seem believable, too. The creeping slippage of a real Manhattan into a manipulated simulacrum, a similar place that rings somewhat true but slightly off, has for many reasons become the new reality.

Manhattan residents already live in a kind of hallucination. Try to live with the everyday presence of the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Times Square, and the Statue of Liberty, and you, too, will be occasionally surprised or knocked over at the sight of these highly-charged symbols of the city.

Famous actors are a common sighting, interrupting a routine walk with a dose of unreality. Furthermore, walking through movies filming on location provokes surrealist situations such as confusing an acting policeman with a real one or being told by a location manager to not walk in the park and then watching an extra, complete with a similar dog, take the walk for you. More to the point, in books such as Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (edited by Michael Sorkin, 1992), urban critics have warned of the effects of rapid gentrification in the city, a process that can lead to the transformation of pockets into amusement parks and the loss of individuality and public space.

Chronic City's character-driven plot builds on the basic strand of an urban buddy tale. A handsome actor, once a child sitcom star, Chase Insteadman, drifts through the Upper East Side, playing on his story, one made poignant by his relationship with his teenage girlfriend, Janice Trumbull, an astronaut stranded on a doomed space station. While she's in outer space, an art-girl ghostwriter, Oona Laszlo, enters the scene to steal away his affections. A growing dependence on the company of a brilliant stoner cultural critic, Perkus Tooth, gradually challenges his complacency.

Other characters include the volatile Richard Abneg, a veteran organizer of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot and now a sellout adviser to the billionaire mayor, and his upper class squeeze, Georgina Hawkmanaji. Because he's fragile, insightful, and feels more real than the others, Perkus attracts the most attention. Anyone who grew up reading the great generation of interdisciplinary rock/art critics - Greil Marcus, Dave Hickey, Lester Bangs, Jim Miller, Langdon Winner, David Fricke, or many others- will recognize in Perkus a familiar voice and literary sensibility.

The action of Chronic City mostly takes place in Chase and Perkus's Upper East Side neighborhood, not in the old guard luxury blocks near Central Park but east of Lexington Avenue in the East 80s near Second Avenue. The Yorkville neighborhood, home to the surreal Marx Brothers, was for a long time an enclave of German residents.

Walking east from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue to Park Avenue, the buildings may be stately architectural gems, but it's not until you get to Lexington, with its many crowded small shops and eateries, that you sense the presence of a bustling worldly metropolis. Several specific locations in Lethem's novel exist in "real life," at least for now, including the Jackson Hole restaurant (1611 2nd Avenue, near E. 84th St.) and the Gracie Mews Diner (401 E. 80th St.), so it is possible to read the novel and literally follow in the characters' footsteps.

Yet, here on the outer edges of the privileged blocks of the UES, a vigorous program of condominium development and the rumbling excavations for Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway, enabled by the city’s real billionaire Mayor, can make longtime residents a bit anxious. As with many other Manhattan residents, Lethem's characters stick to their own neighborhood, latching onto familiar haunts. Losing them is traumatic.

Chronic City invites a rereading from beginning to end, but also encourages jumping in to replay or study favorite passages - the tiger that menaces the city, the illusive and mystical "chaldron," the Second Life-like Yet Another World (the name sounding like a daytime soap opera), Janice's letters from the space station, Perkus's discourse on Marlon Brando, and many more. Thumbing through the book to find beautifully written passages or buried treasure could be compared to pulling out an old record and dropping the needle on a favorite song.

The analog Perkus is not immune to the seduction of the chronic city, but his connections to the downtown scene of the 1970s and 1980s, the golden age before the fog rolls in, keep him vigilant and questioning of the new civic order, though not always coherent to his peers. No one can match him as mentor, except for perhaps a brilliant three-legged dog. This dog, a sensual Situationist, teaches Perkus additional lessons in how to subvert the controlling urban theater by showing him how to walk where the nose leads.

While we’ve learned to cope with the cinematic recreations of Manhattan by telling ourselves, “It’s only a movie,” we’re too early in the creation of the virtual city to understand how to fully deal with it or comprehend its effects on our humanity. Location-based mobile applications, computer simulations, geo-tagging programs, Street View maps, and other forms of augmented reality threaten to turn the city into a computer game, replacing our traditional bonds of place with strategic plans to conquer them. Special places that once upon a time may have had some personal meaning become winning check-in points for someone else’s venture capital.

Engaging with strangers in simulated reality, walking to meetups while texting or talking or consulting the glowing GPS to locate oneself, may open exciting avenues for sociability and connection, but we may lose the city in the process. Dear reader, as the creator of a virtual site for exploring a city too vast for my comprehension, I’ve come to accept my own responsibilities for slipping into the landscapes of fiction. Wandering the streets of Manhattan, and the best way is aimlessly, like an old rock critic or a dog, should be a way for free spirits to contemplate life’s meaning and enchantment, full of wonder and surprise.

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